WILL an in-form striker provide an even greater cutting edge to the reigning world and European champions in Brazil? That could be the determining factor when the Spaniards pursue a fourth consecutive major honour in a row.
In a group including Holland, Chile and rank outsiders Australia, Spain are unlikely to have things all their own way. Throw in the fact that hosts Brazil are likely to be the opponents if Spain finish second in Group B and it can be opined that Vicente del Bosque’s side can ill-afford to be slow starters.
That is why the inclusion and fitness of Atletico Madrid’s in-form striker Diego Costa has been one of the hottest topics from Torrevieja to Torremolinos and from the Bernabeu to Barcelona. It is hoped that Costa will provide Spain with the extra attacking bite the team in the final third has required.
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The 25-year-old is set to be showcasing his talent in the Premier League next season, but it is safe to assume the rest of the world is already well aware of the threat he poses. Whether he can produce on the greatest stage of them all could seriously influence how far Spain progress this month.
There are concerns over his fitness, having wobbled out of the Champions League final late last month nursing a hamstring problem. Provided he has no concerns lingering in the back of his mind, Costa could easily carry his Atletico form on to the international stage.
He finished with 27 goals in La Liga, only Lionel Messi (28) and Cristiano Ronaldo (31) scored more; a Spanish league title party more than made up for finishing behind two of the professional game’s all-time greats.
Only Fernando Torres, the misfiring Chelsea striker Costa is likely to replace at Stamford Bridge, appears to be in contention to lead the line under del Bosque, unless he persists with the False 9 approach which served him relatively well at the European Championships. hether it is Torres, Cesc Fabregas or even David Villa operating in that role, though, the sight of a confident Costa bearing down on goal could be the lift Spain need to get them out of a tricky group.
Spain showed signs of slowing up during qualification. After years of dominating having reached Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup by winning 18 from 18 games, they actually drew a couple this time around.
Those results meant Spain actually had to beat France at the Stade de France to avoid a play-off. Courtesy of Pedro’s winner, that was what they did. The point, however, is that automatic qualification was not as routine as it had been in the past.
What del Bosque is guaranteed to deliver is a Spanish team intent on keeping the ball, believing that preventing the opposition from playing will lead to goalscoring chances for their forwards. It is not too dissimilar to the style of Barcelona, although there is a preference to have two holding midfielders rather than one in front of the back four And with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and David Silva still pulling the strings further forward, the prospect of a goalhungry front-man ahead of them like Costa should be enough to worry defences dotted all around Brazil.
It is hard to imagine Spain finding a World Cup in South America quite as easy as they have found their recent finals, but del Bosque’s men would still seem the best equipped and most suited European nation for delivering a masterclass in the Maracana on July 13.
IT is impossible to ignore the Manchester United factor when you think about the Dutch’s preparations for Brazil.
Louis van Gaal spent the early part of the summer being followed everywhere by the media, desperate for an exclusive confirming he had taken on the role at Old Trafford.
Eventually the announcement arrived, albeit not through van Gaal himself, and suddenly he could start to concentrate on the task at hand.
Before succeeding David Moyes on the Premier League stage, the experienced and muchtravelled 62-year-old has hopes to lead his country to World Cup glory.
The size of the prize and the respect which exists for him from within the Holland squad should, however, determine that the prospect of him leaving his post next month does not affect Holland’s chances.
Van Gaal said: “It is not only the players. I think it is about the relationship between a manager and his squad. They like me now. I feel there are not any problems. We have a very good relationship. But it is also dependent on the results. At this moment we don’t lose so much.”
If Holland fail to live up to their supporters’ expectations then the truth is that it is unlikely to be purely because of van Gaal.
No matter what changes he has made, including a late change to his preferred 4-3-3 system in a friendly with Ecuador, the Holland squad does not look as strong as it has in the past.
There are still the familiar, household names such as Robin van Persie, right, and Arjen Robben around to create something from nothing in the final third, but then there are the less experienced younger generation. How they adapt to the finals is likely to determine how Holland fair.
Can Fenyenoord’s Daryl Janmaat arrive on the big stage to stifle some of the greatest wingers around and will Ajax’s Jasper Cillessen prove himself as a worthy occupant of the Holland No 1 spot in his first finals. There are more question marks than certainties as van Gaal looks to sign off in style.
Chile will provide the South American threat to the two 2010 finalists and both Spain and Holland will be wary of taking Jorge Sampaoli’s team too lightly In March Chile ran Germany very close before losing narrowly 1-0 and the memories of an impressive last World Cup should provide encouragement to most of the surviving members of that squad.
Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez
The likes of Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez, two of Chile’s most expensive and successful exports - must build on their relative success in South Africa and prove greater experience hasmade them even greater players.
The fact they face Australia in the first round of Group B fixtures should help too. Chile can put pressure on the Spanish and Dutch if they can give Australia an early headache.
The Aussies are a different proposition these days and are actually quoted at the longest price for winning the finals (2500-1) by many bookmakers. Without the majority of the old guard like Brett Emerton, Mark Schwarzer and Harry Kewell, it is all eyes on the younger generation.
Tim Cahill, the former Everton midfielder now with New York Red Bulls, is now the man responsible for leading the Socceroos. He spoke recently of the greater intensity and determination in the camp because of the youthful exuberance around, but qualifying for the second stage would have to rank as one of the most incredible World Cup surprises if Australia can pull it off.